“We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.”
That’s how Elena Greco, the narrator of My Brilliant Friend by Italian author Elena Ferrante, describes her childhood in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of 1950s Naples. It’s an apt description, too, of the world we see on screen in a new Sky Atlantic adaptation of the novel, beginning on Monday 19th November.
Ferrante – who uses a pen name to maintain her anonymity, although there were attempts to unmask her in 2016 – was intimately involved in the production, developing the script with director Saverio Costanzo, entirely via email. The result is a mostly successful adaptation, closely aligned to Ferrante’s books, and a uniquely absorbing drama.
This first eight-episode run is based on the first book; three more series are planned, one for each of what are known as Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. My Brilliant Friend opens with a 60-something Elena Greco discovering that her old friend Lila is missing, having taken all of her belongings and cut herself out of family pictures. Elena, or Lenù, starts to write the story of their friendship to undermine Lila’s self-erasure, sending us back to the scruffy streets where the pair grew up.
This reminiscence is not a nostalgic act; Lenù and Lila’s friendship is, from the beginning, fraught and complex. Lenù is clever, self-contained, hesitant; Lila is cleverer, bold, flinty. Their childhood is full of a claustrophobia and menace that is at times overwhelming, only punctuated by blows and brawls. They are passive observers of ever-present violence, and social forces they don’t yet understand: for long stretches, the camera rests on the faces of the young actors – Elisa Del Genio as Lenù and Ludovica Nasti as Lila – who are captivating, as are their teenage incarnations, who we meet in episode three.
The girls are at the heart of a sprawling cast, all drawn from locals in a process that took eight months and involved 9,000 auditionees, which shows the lengths the production went to in pursuit of authenticity; this is also seen in the vast, detailed set, shabby in appearance but luxurious in period detail.
As a drama, My Brilliant Friend isn’t perfect, but, as with Ferrante’s books, that roughness is part of the appeal. And what it does achieve is a consistency of atmosphere and feeling, which is vital for this unapologetically local story – much of the dialogue is in a Neapolitan dialect that many Italians will need subtitles to understand. But this singularity works in the show’s favour; it conjures up a place so specific, so concrete, that it’s a genuine wrench to leave it.
My Brilliant Friend starts on Monday 19th November at 9pm on Sky Atlantic
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